Afterword: "Work That is Real"

by Carol R. Rodgers - 2020

The author recounts aspects of the collaborative process that gave birth to this special issue as well as elements of teaching, teacher education, and philosophy that cut across the articles. The author focuses on the person, experience and reflection, and belief, purpose, mission, and alignment with practice. She attempts to bring these ideas to life through story.


At the start of our three days together, Margaret Crocco and I were asked to comment on current issues in teacher education. Margaret gave a brilliant discourse on research in the field; I told stories. She surveyed the forest, while I parachuted into the trees. In this rather intimate group of 17, I wanted to get to know my colleagues and have them know me. What better way in than stories? I began by reflecting on how I learned to teach, and to teach teachers.

The story I started with was a confession: I never went through a teacher education program and have never been certified. I was trained to teach English as a Foreign Language in the Peace Corps in Senegal in 1977, using a rigid language teaching procedure (the audio-lingual method, or ALM) and prescribed materials (a felt board with stereotyped characters—Kofi and Adu—and huts). This step-by-step process, like a set of leg braces, was a welcome support to me as I wobbled my way into teaching groups of 30–60 boys between the ages of 10 and 20. But soon the supports began to feel like restraints. They chafed. As I mastered the drills, the patterns of the method, the rhythm of the call and response dialogues, the language of behavior management, my attention and the energy required, no longer needed for these now habitual moves, was freed up. I began to perceive where students were itching for more, bored, stuck, confused, and where I was off the mark. I began to experiment with games instead of drills, allowing students to create and act out dialogues rather than memorize them. And as I experimented, questions about teaching, learning, and context seeped out of the ground of my practice; images of what might be formed as I watched my students’ brilliant riffs on our otherwise rut-bound routines. Beyond that, I felt the implications of being a White, presumably Christian, Western woman in a boys’ school in a newly independent Muslim African country, even if I was unable to articulate them. “Who was I to be there? Whose needs were being met? What was the purpose of this work?” At the time, teaching and learning was an adventure, a kind of wild road trip, rather than a list of procedures. I came to experience it as a bottomless well of open questions. There arose in me a felt need, a fervent curiosity, an intellectual hunger, to know more about this thing called teaching.

A couple of years later, after a brief stint as a public middle school French and Spanish and reading teacher in Maine, I found myself working as a (not very well-qualified) teacher trainer in a refugee camp in Southeast Asia. Suddenly I had to convert my experiential knowledge of teaching and learning into a teacher education curriculum. Fortunately, I worked with colleagues who had been educated at the highly regarded School for International Training’s MAT program in language teaching (based in Brattleboro, Vermont). The MAT program was known for infusing practice with philosophy and mission. The philosophy came from three primary sources: language and math educator Caleb Gattegno (1976), psychologist Carl Rogers (1961), and educator Earl Stevick (1980). The mission came from the institution that housed SIT, the Experiment in International Living, which promoted “peace through understanding,” and “learning to live together by living together.” It was through my refugee camp colleagues, all graduates of the MAT program, that I came across a book that spoke to my experience and my values, written by Gattegno.1 In the preface he had written, “Teachers must be concerned with what the students are doing with themselves rather than with the language, which is the students’ concern. Teachers and students work on different subjects.”2 In other words, students learn the subject matter while teachers learn the students. Something about these words resonated with my experience, but what exactly did he mean? It was worth pursuing, and we were on an island where time for intellectual pursuit was on our side. Aside from working and making our own entertainment (we wrote songs and skits) talking and reading were what we did.  

Many years later, after several years on the faculty of the MAT program at SIT, I began studying for my doctorate at Harvard in 1992. I returned to school because I was fascinated by learning how teachers learned to see. Our teacher-learners at MAT seemed to acquire this skill, but I wasn’t quite sure how. Then one day, while at Harvard, in an empty classroom, I happened upon a monograph with the title, “The Art of Seeing and the Visibility of the Person” (1979) by Patricia Carini. Carini and her colleagues, I was to learn, had pioneered a way of exploring teaching and learning that integrated, among others, John Dewey’s views on teaching and learning, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work on phenomenology and perception, Ernest Schachtel’s (1959) notion of habituated perception versus “seeing” something or someone. Carini (1979), drawing on both Schachtel and Merleau-Ponty, wrote, “The experience [of seeing] is one not of work-a-day familiarity, but of deep recognition of a reciprocity in which you speak to the object and the object affectively speaks to you . . . both the observer and the object take on a new layer of meaning, and each is therefore increased in intensity, depth, and fullness” (pp. 12–13). To me the discovery of Carini’s work took me to a new place. It articulated not only the questions I had, but some of the answers I was looking for. What makes us human? How do we teach in ways that respond to and extend the humanity in our students? How do children (and new teachers) perceive the world? The answers, or rather the reflections on these questions, seemed to lean towards the value of the particular. Taking the time to observe a learner’s small gestures, choices, moves, quirks, interactions, and traces of thinking, through processes that emphasized description and inquiry, pointed towards insight. Description implied slowing down to see, being present to what presented itself, without rushing to judgment or premature diagnosis. This way of thinking about teaching, about my learners, about myself, was what I was hungry for.

I subsequently learned that Carini and the archives of the Prospect School (where these descriptive processes were developed), were located in North Bennington, Vermont, not far from me. I started to attend study group meetings with Carini and other former Prospect teachers, where I continued to learn about and participate in various descriptive processes.3

Both Prospect and MAT incorporated reflection widely, but, although it was part of nearly everything we did, I was curious to know more. We relied on David Kolb’s (1984) model of experiential learning4 and reflection, but what did others have to say? What was reflection, exactly? What was the evidence of its impact on learning to teach? Again, fortune smiled on me. Dewey scholar Jay Featherstone was a visiting professor for one semester at Harvard in the fall of 1993, and I was all in. We plunged into primary works of Dewey5 and I was immersed in the thinking of someone who seemed to anticipate all of my questions, and many more I’d never thought to ask, such as, What is experience?

My last story took me to South Africa where I was a visiting scholar for a year in 2011. I was reminded of my own ignorance and privilege daily, the limiting assumptions I came in with, and how much I had to learn from my stunning group of colleagues, teachers in the field, and their students. I came late to the social justice table, but I have not left. I read Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) again with new eyes. I read Keet, Zinn, and Porteus (2009) on mutual vulnerability. I read Jonathan Jansen’s Knowledge in the Blood (2009) and listened to my colleagues’ stories of apartheid from the past and present. I thought of my own “blood” knowledge (see Kozol’s Shame of the Nation: Apartheid in America, 2005), and I could not escape the pain of my own mortifyingly biased, I would even say racist, assumptions. I entered a space of perpetual “not-knowing.”

In each of these stories, I seemed to encounter big ideas that spoke to the particularities of my experience. Or was it the rich particularities of my experiences that somehow extended into space until they encountered ideas that stuck, illuminating, organizing, and lending language to those particularities? I felt the power of “work that was real” that spoke to me as a person, and I wanted to better understand it myself and make such a journey accessible to others. These stories (and others) fueled my work as a teacher educator.

After I’d finished my introduction to the group represented in this volume, we continued around the room introducing ourselves. As we circled round the room, I was struck by how many of us (though not all) confessed that they, too, had never been certified to teach. Was it the experience of work that was real, that spoke to our selves, that drove us to pursue and persist in this work? Is work that is real a starting place for learning to teach, a stimulus for philosophical questions? How do we create that for new teachers? What does it mean for the work of teaching to be real? In the remainder of this essay I explore these questions through three lenses—the person; experience, reflection, and the particular; and mission, purpose, and alignment. I use my experiences of learning to teach and to teach teachers as points of departure, drawing on the wisdom of the articles in this volume as I go.


Midway through our conference we stopped to reflect on what we had learned so far. Megan, reflecting on the various presentations we’d heard to that point, said, “Teaching is such personal work.” “I think perhaps you mean ‘singular’ work?” offered David. She considered this for a moment. “No,” she countered. “Personal work.” Work that is of the person, the self. As they write in their introductory article, “it is the person in the role [of teacher], rather than the role as such, who educates.” And yet, interestingly for me, it was the role—those procedural, ALM steps—that provided a container, a cocoon perhaps, from which my teaching self could eventually emerge. That container gave me something to push off against, rather than trying to gain purchase in a vacuum. I have often thought of art students who are sent to museums to study the masters, tracing them in their own sketch books, before they are asked to paint for and from themselves. To figure out who one is as a teacher may take multiple encounters with the not-self, or even visceral revulsion—“I don’t want to be that self!” (I encountered this self—mortified and horrified—in South Africa when my colleague reflected back to me my assumptions: that Black schools—the 90%—should aspire to be more like White schools—the 10%. What might it mean for them to be more African instead?) Learning to teach is a process of learning to embody what one values, and shed, like old skin, what one does not. As important as this process is, having to figure out immediately what these values are when the urgencies of teaching are present, can impede learning. Having a prefigured teaching role, as I did in the Peace Corps, may be a salutary first step.  

Several of the authors of the articles in this volume address the embodied aspects of teaching. As Shilpi and Shaireen note, citing Merleau-Ponty, the first response to any experience is personal, visceral—below the level of reflective awareness; only the second response is more reflective, cerebral, and thoughtful. But it is the power of the personal, that clutch of dissonance, that drives the learning. As one of their students said of learning about racism, “It’s OK in the abstract but it does not affect me personally” (italics added). This is key. I recall the story of one woman I interviewed for my dissertation who referred to the importance of a “felt need” to learn. She was a student in a radical teacher education program6 that traveled through the South by VW van during the Civil Rights Era. They were a mixed-race group. Anne was White and her friend, Hugh, from Barbados, was Black. One night he asked her to cut his hair. “I caught myself feeling revolted, and I was so ashamed,” she told me. She and Hugh were close friends, and yet this old and deep response, learned from years of listening to other voices, put her in undeniable contact with the truth of her own prejudice. Racial prejudice was no longer abstract, but a deeply felt dissonance in need of resolution.

Stephanie and Maria Paula speak about “teaching where we think.” Our bodies are situated, and we make sense of experience from that perspective. As Anne traveled into the Deep South, she found herself in a different “where.” As I think of the different places that I have taught, I am so grateful for my range of “wheres,” and how they stretched the boundaries of my own singular Western, WASPy “where.” To imagine oneself into another’s “where” is an essential part of what it means to teach (or to parent, as Stephanie explains). Many of the students whom we teach have not traveled very far beyond their own “wheres.” If you have never been elsewhere (than where you think) then it is hard to know that you think anywhere.

In bumping up against other “wheres” (Senegal, Southeast Asia, South Africa, the Bronx) and other ways of being (teaching without talking, subordinating teaching to learning) I began to shape my own teaching self, engaging in what Mark and John in their article term “self”-determination. Making choices that aligned with values I was learning I had, that resonated with the person who was (is still) becoming “me.” As I did so, I was developing the embodied inner criteria for good teaching and I wanted to talk and write about it.


The Particular

As David, Megan, and Rory point out, the “crucible of experience” yearns for meaning to be made. They write, “Practice is always already saturated with actions and thoughts that virtually cry out for philosophical consideration.” The material for one’s own development is contained within the particulars of practice. These particulars, like so many hands dying to be called on, are there to be seen and heard and inquired into. Consider Cara and Shannon’s exploration of “interruptions” in their article. In a way, it is only after thoughtful reflection like theirs that experience becomes real. Freire talks about naming the world, Heidegger conceived of “worlding,” and Dewey spoke of reorganizing and reconstructing experience (reflection), which equips a person to go into the world with greater “self”-determination, to recall Mark John’s term. The very structure of our conference, which informs this special issue, was to bring the philosophical knowledge of one author together with the particulars of their co-author’s on-the-ground work. Philosophy without the gritty particularities of life, or stories from the teachers’ room that fail to reach beyond complaint or advice, each fall short of what is possible when they come together.

As an undergraduate student, I majored in religion. I was not religious, and the classes were mostly in philosophy. We read Immanuel Kant and Paul Tillich and Søren Kierkegaard and other (white) men. I felt frustrated, not because there were no women (although I did notice—I was also one of only two women in the department, taught by a white, all-male faculty) but because our discussions lived in the clouds. No one seemed to care what these big ideas meant in “real life.” I realized at some point that I should have been an English major. I needed stories to dig around in, the laughter and grief, the deceit and the generosity of people’s lives and relationships. From those particulars I might come to some general truths about what it meant to be alive. As Merleau-Ponty (1962) put it, “because we are in the world, we are condemned to meaning” (p. ix). I needed to be in the world.

Reflection in community

It is significant that in my own teaching history, and in each of these articles, reflection happened in community. For this volume, we reflected in author pairs, as a group of 17, and in shifting, smaller groups over three days of talks, walks, and meals. As a dispersed community we wrote and read drafts, and now have collaborative AERA presentations to come in April 2019. In my life as a teacher, community has been tremendously important. In the refugee camp we were literally marooned together on a deserted island in the South China Sea. At MAT we taught sections of the same courses and regularly shared and inquired into our practice. Nearly 20 years after most of us have left MAT, we still meet to reflect on our lives and our work. Like Carini and her colleagues at Prospect, and the authors in this volume, we read widely and structure our reflections intentionally. Beginning with the particulars of our experiences is essential, but equally critical is the meaning we extract, aided by each other, and the larger community of writers and thinkers who prefer to dwell in questions rather than answers.


A third area all the articles in this volume have in common is commitment to a set of convictions about teaching and learning, purposes, like a just and democratic society, and a moral, spiritual, commitment to the growth and humanness of teachers, learners, and the planet. What is so powerful about these articles is that they do not preach. Rather, they seek, fully aware of our noble as well as ignoble motivations, but willing to abide there and consider other frames of meaning.

I have found a piece written by Edward Anthony (1963) to be useful in understanding the place of alignment of purpose and practice. Entitled “Approach, Method, and Technique,” the article seeks to distinguish among the three. Approach, Anthony wrote, signifies a hierarchy. Working backwards, “techniques carry out a method which is consistent with an approach” (p. 63). He described approach as a set of assumptions about the nature of subject matter, teaching, and learning. These assumptions, he contends, are axiomatic and state “a point of view, a philosophy, an article of faith—something which one believes but cannot necessarily prove. It is often unarguable except in terms of the effectiveness of the methods which grow out of it” (pp. 63–64). Method, in contrast, is procedural. It connotes “an overall plan for the orderly presentation of material” and should be consistent with an approach. For example, the method of language teaching I first learned, (ALM), was in part based on the assumption (approach) that people learn to speak a language through imitation and memorization, in context. The method consisted of constructing situations (greetings, going to the market, taking a taxi—aided by the felt board figures) along with a typical dialogue given the situation, that is then memorized and practiced. Technique is implementational and is carried out in the classroom. It is what is often referred to as “a bag of tricks.” In the case of ALM, it consisted of repetition and memorization of the dialogue, substitution and transformation drills, dialogue presentation, and dictation, all in alignment with the method and approach. Techniques are often what new teachers hunger for, professional development days often consist of, and trade books are replete with (see, e.g., Teach Like a Champion, workshops for what to do on Monday morning, and so forth).

I think of the three as a tree: the roots which feed the tree are the approach; the trunk and branches, which give basic shape to the tree, are method; and the leaves, the most visible and flamboyant part of the tree, are techniques. The leaves can be mistaken for the whole of the tree, but, like leaves without branches, trunk, and roots, soon die from lack of nourishment. Similarly, techniques can be mistaken for the whole of teaching. But if a teacher adheres to techniques alone, her practice, too, will wither and die. Many of the core practices that Jeff and Joe reference are techniques (e.g., “managing discussions,” “implementation of organizational routines”). But, as the authors show, in isolation, unattached to what Kennedy (2016) calls purposes (approach) they lose their power and can even do harm. In her article, Kennedy references one of these instances. A new teacher, working on discreet moves within the core practice of “managing discussions,” (e.g., asking students what another student has just said; asking who agrees or disagrees), used these techniques unconsciously to signal whose answers she clearly preferred. She would ask students to repeat what a student had said when they offered a “good” idea, but with “incorrect” ideas, she tended to ask who agreed and disagreed. Her purpose (perhaps unknown even to her) was to get students to the correct answer, one she clearly already had in mind. Alternatively, her purposes might have been repurposed to have students learn to listen to and explore each other’s thinking; to discover for herself what they understood and where the gaps in their knowledge lay in order to better support their thinking; or to model how a deliberative democracy works. In these cases, her techniques would have looked and felt very different.

It is not hard to trace a discreet practice back to its roots. For example, bundled within the belief that the purpose of learning is to get the right answer are others: knowledge is “out there,” an objective thing, like so many post-its stuck to a person; someone else creates that knowledge—it is not “mine;” school is a closed system with little or no connection to my students as persons or their lives outside these walls; the purpose of school is to pass from one level to the next. Mark and John point out that institutions and societies also promulgate assumptions and purposes—for example, that college is the best, and most valuable, alternative for all students. Unexamined, teachers absorb these institutional and societal assumptions.

Argyris and Schön (1974) wrote about these hidden assumptions that we all unconsciously carry, calling them “theories-in-use.” Our theories-in-use often conflict with our “espoused theories.” The former is actions, the latter words. For example, following the racist demonstrations in Charlottesville, VA in 2017, there emerged a hashtag entitled #ThisIsNotUs, in support of those whom the white supremacists marched against. In response, New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb (an African American) said, “Of course it is [us].” (Cobb, 2017). The “theory” espoused by the hashtag group was that fundamentally, we are a good, non-racist people who believe that Black lives matter. The theory-in-use—Cobb’s lived experience, his reality—was that, in fact, Black lives matter less, a condition that implicates us all.

When student teachers or job applicants are asked to write philosophy of teaching statements, they usually compose a litany of espoused theories. Toiling in the field of espoused theory is usually a drag. Ask any student teacher (Phelan, 2005). It doesn’t get you very far in understanding the person. It tells you who they would like to be seen as but reveals little of who they are.

Such disconnections are common. The school I work in in the Bronx has clearly and explicitly espoused theories upon which the school was founded—the subordination of teaching to learning; only awareness is educable; students cannot be other than where they are; kindness. The work of professional development, rightly, is to help teachers align their practice (theories-in-use) with the school’s espoused theories, (and to help them embrace said theories). Not for the mere sake of alignment, but for the well-being, growth, and integrity of both teachers and students. And yet the school, a preK-5 public charter, whose very survival hangs upon its test results, succumbed each year to weeks of intensive test prep. The theory-in-use was that if they adhered solely to practices that embodied their espoused theory, students would not do as well on the state tests. In essence, they felt they had to resort to test prep so that students (and the school) didn’t fail. Teachers also got this message from administration, which, in addition to the stress of the tests themselves, caused them to worry about job security. In an end-of-year reflection, we (a small group of administration, PD, consultants, and teachers) named and confronted the reality of this disjuncture. To a person, deferring to the tests felt like a violation of their most deeply cherished commitments and beliefs about teaching, children, and school, and of their persons, their integrity as teachers. The following year, teachers, with administrative support, chose to attend more consciously to alignment between how they taught and what they believed, trying to let go of the panic and trust more fully in the truth of their philosophy. And, at least for the past two years, the results have been promising. The examined particulars of experience became the seeds from which revolution (with a small r) grew.

When attention turns to the beliefs that underlie the particulars of practice, then we get to the real stuff. When, working backwards from technique to method to approach, we learn that, in fact, we embody a belief we fundamentally reject, the desire to investigate, change (or defend!), quickens. Each of the articles of this volume, in a sense, attempts to address this disjuncture—and alignment—between practice and philosophy. The pairing of philosophy scholars with practitioners, embodies that tension, setting up a kind of container within which the authors might grapple with questions of alignment. In essence these are questions of integrity.

But beneath these issues of alignment there is something more: a passionate commitment to something beyond the self that is almost holy, sacred—a mission. Teaching at some point, for many of us, becomes spiritual work. It demands our conscious awareness of what makes us human and humane—as well as inhuman, inhumane. At one level, it is a desire, quite simply, to make the world a kinder, better place—to care—but this demands looking the unkind, brutal aspects of ourselves in the face and to choose consciously and act from something different. This is deep, forever work, and one of the beauties of being a teacher.


So, what makes the work of teaching real? As articulated by the various contributions to this volume, it is work that is deeply human, involving the whole of a person—heart, mind, body, and spirit; work that is deeply grounded in the particulars of experience—interactions between the self and others and the world—and reflection on those interactions that gives larger meaning to them; and work that is purposeful, that reaches beyond the needs of the self in service to others. Fundamentally, as Paolo Freire (2011) asserts, it is work that makes room for love.

As human beings, we crave work that is real; we want to be useful to those we love and to the larger world. I would suggest that to be of use in the world is to do work that is real. They are equivalents. Indeed, it is with others, in relationship, that we become real. As Dewey, Merleau-Ponty, Arendt, and others (including everyday philosophers like Margery Williams Bianco7) make clear, we are human—real—in interaction with our environment and with each other. We have the capacity to humanize each other. We disappear when we are not seen by others or become distorted, unvalued, an “it” when we are misperceived. Part of the task of a teacher is to educate children to convert the world at large, the planet and those who inhabit it, from “its” (objects) to Thous (Buber, 1958; Hawkins, 2002) through relationship, interaction, reflection, and connection to larger purposes. This is not complicated work, but it is revolutionary (with a big R): to value connection and reflection over “results.” I have a simple exercise I do with teachers that might serve as a modest example.

I call it the Leaf Activity. I often teach the class (fully online) in the fall, in upstate New York, when the leaves are turning brilliant shades of red, orange, gold, and copper. I instruct my students (all teachers) to collect a pile of leaves from outside and bring them indoors. They must choose one of the leaves and spend at least 30 minutes drawing that leaf, using whatever materials they choose. When they have finished, they are to put their leaf back into the pile, shuffle it, and then find their leaf. It is rare that students can’t readily identify their leaf. It is a particular size, has a particular color pattern, has holes in particular places, and particular tears along its edges. Sometimes they name their leaves and keep them as reminders to take the time to notice, to see.

In addition to slowing down to see, there is a kind of alchemical transformation at work: the leaf, though physically unaltered, is changing from an “it” to a “Thou;” it becomes more “real.” As my students make sense of the experience, they bring to bear the ideas of Carini, Freire, and Dewey to bear, and the sense of meaningfulness they had in the doing is extended through both reflection and reading. For many, they say it reminds them why they went into teaching in the first place.

The activity is satisfying in and of itself—the use of the senses, of the body, of color, of materials. But it is also satisfying as a metaphor for larger questions of teaching. How does careful looking humanize even the inanimate world? How does drawing change the way we look? What does it mean to see a child? Why does seeing matter? These are teaching questions, but they are also philosophical questions. They are real questions.

Like the authors of the articles in this volume, each of whom has offered stories from their lives, I add mine in the hopes that the sedimented layers of meaning we have made serves as a foundation upon which to build structures of integrity that fuse philosophy with teaching and teacher education. As teachers and teacher educators, we need to seize the time for stories to be told and meaning to be made. (That time will not be handed to us.) We need to do work—study groups, co-teaching placements, longitudinal professional development like Descriptive Review—that will realize our students and also realize us.


1. Gattegno (1976).

2. Many years later, in graduate school, I would come across almost the same words in Dewey’s How We Think (1933): “The problem of the pupils is found in the subject matter, the problem of teachers is what the minds of pupils are doing with the subject matter” (Italics in original, 275).

3. For a list of books and articles by Carini and others about descriptive inquiry, see Also The New Educator, 7(3), 2011, for an overview of Prospect’s teacher education program.

4. Kolb’s model of experiential learning incorporates reflection as one step in a process involving abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. His book, Experiential Learning (1984) elaborates significantly on these.

5. School and Society, The Child and the Curriculum, Democracy and Education, How We Think, Art as Experience, and Experience and Education

6. Rodgers C. (2006). “The turning of one’s soul:” Lessons in race and social justice: The Putney Graduate School of Teacher Education (1950-1964). Teachers College Record, 108(7), pp. 1266-1295

7. Bianco (1922), author of The Velveteen Rabbit, writes in the voice of the child’s toy: “Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. . . . You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.”


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 4, 2020, p. 1-14 ID Number: 23080, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 5:21:43 AM

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